Bible and Bible Study: October 2004 Archives

From my favorite epistle of the Bible:

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Philippians 4:8

I start with an aside: that pretty much lets politics out. And then continue to the main point--our lives are worthy of the gift we have been given when they most thoroughly reflect the manner of thought suggested above. Finally, we make life better for those around us when we concentrate on these things in the people we meet rather than on the darkness, as too often seems our wont.

Think how much more pleasant a day at work would be if you spent it thinking about how many virtues you can find and foster in those around you rather than how awful people can be. We have a choice about how we think about each other and the world that God has created. We can regard everything as implacable enemy of the soul--a constant dreary battle. Or we can regard everything as a flawed but certain indicator of the existence and presence of the loving God.

When we think of these things we perform as kind of Christian "Namaste." When we look at all these worthwhile virtues, we say to a person, "I see and salute the Godhead within you." The source of all beauty, all goodness, all wonderful things is God. Everything that is good derives its goodness from God's ultimate goodness. To see goodness is to see the presence of God and in some sense, to see goodness is to draw it out of a person.

And so, because it is so beautiful, so apt, and so apropos, I leave you once again with Paul's words:

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

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. . . and their proper interpretation

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel
St. John of the Cross

[from Book II, Chapter 19]

For two reasons we have said that, although visions and locutions which come from God are true, and in themselves are always certain, they are not always so with respect to ourselves. One reason is the defective way in which we understand them; and the other, the variety of their causes. In the first place, it is clear that they are not always as they seem, nor do they turn out as they appear to our manner of thinking. The reason for this is that, since God is vast and boundless, He is wont, in His prophecies, locutions and revelations, to employ ways, concepts and methods of seeing things which differ greatly from such purpose and method as can normally be understood by ourselves; and these are the truer and the more certain the less they seem so to us. This we constantly see in the Scriptures. To many of the ancients many prophecies and locutions of God came not to pass as they expected, because they understood them after their own manner, in the wrong way, and quite literally. This will be clearly seen in these passages.

Guess this leaves the "Left Behinders" with rather short shrift. And well done, too. Literal reading of Biblical test is a never-ending morass of confusion and misunderstanding in many cases. One must, of course, understand the literal meaning of the words, but that does not mean that what is expressed on the face of it it what ultimately is intended by it. A simple example is when Jesus says, "I am the light of the world." We look neither for a wick, nor for a switch. We understand this to be said metaphorically. We all know this, but there are some pockets of Protestantism in particularly that insist on literal readings, most particularly of texts that were never written to be read literally. (The Apocalypse comes to mind.)

One must never attempt to understand what is being said in the Bible by leaping over the literal meaning to some cracked figurative meaning. But then neither should one stop at the literal meaning thinking that is all that is present. The word of God is sharper than any two edged sword.

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I love Bill's idea of assembling a Psalter. My difficulty would come in choosing the very best versions of these translations. Naturally KJV and BCP come to mind, with Douay-Rheims-Challoner as possibilities. But I am reminded of the huge wealth of the literature of translation, inclunding Mary (Sidney) Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and the remarkable Bay Psalm Book, from which I extract Psalm 1.

Psalm 1 from the Bay Psalme Booke

1 O blessed man, that in th'advice
of wicked doth not walk
Nor stand in sinners way nor sit
in chayre of scornfull folk.

2 But in the law of Jehova,
is his longing delight;
and in his law doth meditate
by day and ere by night.

3 And he shall be like to a tree
planted by water-rivers:
That in his season yields his fruit
And his leafe never withers.

4 And all he doth, shall prosper well,
the wicked are not so:
But they are like unto the chaffe
which winde drives to and fro.

5 Therefore shall not ungodly men,
rise to stand in the doome,
Nor shall the sinners with the just,
in their assemblie come.

6 For of the righteous men, the Lord
aknowledgeth the way:
but the way of ungodly men,
shall utterly decay.

You can hear some ot the melodies to which this might have been sung on this page.

A related page here gives a sense of what such a psalter might be. Though, I wouldn't necessarily choose the translations on these pages--they are instructive to see what one would choose for singing Psalms.

For example, here's Milton's rather strident and overly poetic version of the same. (Note half-rhymes and enjambments that would make singing almost nonsensical, it would seem.)

Psalm 1
translated by John Milton

Bless'd is the man who hath not walk'd astray
In counsel of the wicked, and ith' way
Of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat
Of scorners hath not sate. But in the great
Jehovahs Law is ever his delight,
And in his Law he studies day and night.

He shall be as a tree which planted grows
By watry streams, and in his season knows
To yield his fruit, and his leaf shall not fall,
And what he takes in hand shall prosper all.
Not so the wicked, but as chaff which fann'd
The wind drives, so the wicked shall not stand

In judgment, or abide their tryal then,
Nor sinners in th' assembly of just men.
For the Lord knows th' upright way of the just,
And the way of bad men to ruine must.

But still, the idea has appeal, if only for the fact that it would require us to spend some goodlyl amount of time perusing, and hopefully praying the psalms as we are selecting them.

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This is one of my favorite psalms, and for a variety of reason, I truly love this setting of it.

Psalm 139
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke

Psalm 139
by Mary (Sidney) Herbert,
Countess of Pembroke

      O LORD, O Lord, in me there lieth nought
    But to thy search revealed lies,
            For when I sit
            Thou markest it;
    No less thou notest when I rise;
Yea, closest closet of my thought
    Hath open windows to thine eyes.

Thou walkest with me when I walk;
    When to my bed for rest I go,
            I find thee there,
            And everywhere:
    Not youngest thought in me doth grow,
No, not one word I cast to talk
    But yet unuttered thou dost know.

If forth I march, thou goest before,
    If back I turn, thou com'st behind:
            So forth nor back
            Thy guard I lack,
    Nay on me too, thy hand I find.
Well I thy wisdom may adore,
    But never reach with earthy mind.

To shun thy notice, leave thine eye,
    O whither might I take my way?
            To starry sphere?
            Thy throne is there.
    To dead men's undelightsome stay?
There is thy walk, and there to lie
    Unknown, in vain I should assay.

O sun, whom light nor flight can match,
    Suppose thy lightful flightful wings
            Thou lend to me,
            And I could flee
    As far as thee the evening brings:
Even led to west he would me catch,
    Nor should I lurk with western things.

Do thou thy best, O secret night,
    In sable veil to cover me:
            Thy sable veil
            Shall vainly fail;
    With day unmasked my night shall be,
For night is day, and darkness light,
    O father of all lights, to thee.

Each inmost piece in me is thine:
    While yet I in my mother dwelt,
            All that me clad
            From thee I had.
    Thou in my frame hast strangely dealt:
Needs in my praise thy works must shine
    So inly them my thoughts have felt.

Thou, how my back was beam-wise laid,
    And raft'ring of my ribs, dost know;
            Know'st every point
            Of bone and joint,
    How to this whole these parts did grow,
In brave embroid'ry fair arrayed,
    Though wrought in shop both dark and low.

Nay fashionless, ere form I took,
    Thy all and more beholding eye
            My shapeless shape
            Could not escape:
    All these time framed successively
Ere one had being, in the book
    Of thy foresight enrolled did lie.

My God, how I these studies prize,
    That do thy hidden workings show!
            Whose sum is such
            No sum so much,
    Nay, summed as sand they sumless grow.
I lie to sleep, from sleep I rise,
    Yet still in thought with thee I go.

My God, if thou but one wouldst kill,
    Then straigh would leave my further chase
            This cursed brood
            Inured to blood,
    Whose graceless taunts at thy disgrace
Have aimed oft; and hating still
    Would with proud lies thy truth outface.

Hate not I them, who thee do hate?
    Thine, Lord, I will the censure be.
            Detest I not
            The cankered knot
    Whom I against thee banded see?
O Lord, thou know'st in highest rate
    I hate them all as foes to me.

Search me, my God, and prove my heart,
    Examine me, and try my thought;
            And mark in me
            If ought there be
    That hath with cause their anger wrought.
If not (as not) my life's each part,
    Lord, safely guide from danger brought.

There is an ease and a beauty here that does not show in the sinewy and strident translations of Milton. There is also a music here that is lost in most other translations (the exceptions being the 1662 BCP and the King James and some of its predecessors.) You can imagine this psalm set to music, to baroque music--trumpets and flourishes. Unlike the weedy, thin and well-nigh indecipherable knots of words that we call our modern translations. No grandeur, no stateliness. What can one say of this:

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side


Or this:

Psalm 139

O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.


Sounds like the work of an extraterrestrial stalker.

Consider a point I made a day or so ago. How we speak may have some influence on our thought. It would seem that when we speak of God we should do so in the best way possible. That is, that the prayers we recite and the psalms we sing should be formulated in words the best reflect the majesty of their Subject.

Taste varies, and often people say that poetry is such a subjective art. And yet, we all know, nearly instinctually what makes a great poem, what makes a sing-song rhyme, and what makes an execrable butchery of the language. Can you imagine an ancient Hebrew poem in which the word "probed" is actually used? Or one in which the utterly prosaic and ghastly, "Even though I walk through a dark valley. . ." It is no wonder our prayer lives are so hampered if these are a materials we are given to start with. They treat God and his word as if he were our Home Boy or our local Val. Like, AS IF.

Okay, I've bent your ear enough. But we can do better than what is presently put before us, and we should strive to do so, seeking out not merely adequate, but truly magnificent translations--words that stir the heart and stick in the brain.

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Here, succinctly stated, is the truth I've come through time to recognize about the King James Bible.

from God's Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

English was simply the target, the destination, not the language in which questions of precise meaning were naturally addressed. The Englich sentences were being prepared for others, the non-educated, who had no access to the essence of the text which these scholars, like Bois, had been drinking in for decades. The English, in other words, was itself subservient to the original Greek.

That linguistic hierarchy is also one of the sources of the King James style. This English is there to serve the original not to replace it. It speaks in its master's voice and is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever. It took up its life in a new and distinct dimension of linguistic space, somewhere between English and Greek (or, for the Old Testament, between English and Hebrew). These scholars were not pulling the language of scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into Englilsh. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englilshmen would have written, and that secretarial relationship to the original languages of the scripture shaped the translation.

The majesty of the King James Bible is that the language there spoken has never been spoken by any people as the common tongue.

Taste in translation and in approaches to the Bible is largely, I think, similar to taste in the types of liturgies people prefer. Some prefer Latin Masses of the Tridentine School, others the Novus Ordo, still others the vernacular. All of these are excellent vehicles approved by the Church. The translation of the Bible is similar, although not all translations are of comparable worth. Some sing, and some plod; however all serve one audience or another and are therefore intrinsically valuable.

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Wilfrid Stinissen Revisited

| | Comments (1)

I suppose I am riding this hobby-horse to death, but I find so much within Stinnisen worthy of attention. I was remarking to the leader of the group with whom I am studying this book a second time that like our other works (Rick Warren and Alan Jones), I am having real problems with this study. Unlike our other studies, my problems with this one is that there is so much in so few pages that I cannot seem to force myself through the book at the pace we want to maintain. I get lost in the magnificence of some of the ideas, and I'm constantly reaching for my Bible--the latter probably the greatest tribute one could pay to such a work.

from Nourished by the Word
Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen O.C.D.

The Bible gives us a synthesis of all of reality but not thereby a system. One does not find an elaborated systematic theology or anthropology in the bible. It is always life which is primary. If you direct theoretical questions to the Bible, you receive practical answers. Who is God, you ask? And the Bible replies: live as a child to your heavenly Father, dare to be children, trustful and lighthearted; follow Jesus, who is the Father's image in the world, partake of his suffering and be like him in a death like his; wait for and listen to the Spirit and let its inspiration be shown to advantage in your life. What is prayer you ask? And the reply sounds imperative: so shall you pray: Our Father . . .

What is love? It is wonderful to philosophize over love, over Eros and agape, but you don't have the time; do like the Good Samaritan, give food to those that are hungry.

Will there be many who will get to heaven or only a few, a majority or a minority? "Strive" replies Jesus, "to enter through the narrow door" (LK 13:24). Don't waste your time with speculations over quantities, don't occupy yourself with statistics, but see to it that you yourself are present.

As I have grown in the Carmelite charism, I have discovered any number of wonders implicit in the ancient Rule of St. Albert and spelled out more clearly by the ongoing reformation and redefinition of the Order, particularly in the rule for the third Order. One of the things emphasized at every opportunity is the necessity and the glory of lectio divina. So much so that one Priest of the order described lectio as the glory of contemplative prayer. The order has said that it is highly desirable that communal lectio divina be part of our monthly gatherings. And when we are faithful to that, the monthly meetings are fruitful, productive, and life-changing. When we fail in it, then little else that happens at the meeting is of any worth.

All Catholics and all orders highly prize the word of God, they cannot do otherwise. The Dominicans show how they cherish is in the charism of preaching the word--making it clear for those who have a lesser understanding. But such preaching can only be fueled by spending time in the word, steeping oneself in it. Franciscans bring it to life through evangelical poverty. But such poverty is meaningless unless it calls to mind Him for whom we endure poverty, unless it reifies the word in the world.

The mission of the lay Carmelite is to bring the word of God into the world through our evangelical works. But how can one do that if one is not aware of what the word says? How can one preach by actions if one's own actions are not informed by the Word of God. All that we would say would be falsehood.

Stinissen points out here that above all else, the Word is practical or it lacks any meaning at all for us. We are not given a philosophical system (not that there is anything wrong with such), but rather a set of instructions, commandments, or guidelines that tell us how to be God's children. More than that, we are given multiple views of His Only Begotten Son so that we might better see what it means to be a child of God. And with this equipment, we are to go out into the world and make it real for people who do not even begin to suspect its truth.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Bible and Bible Study category from October 2004.

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